The next meeting between Martha and Mrs Ajasin was for mourning and celebration. Martha had travelled back to Abeokuta after the whole investigation was completed, carrying the fear of being accused like a heavy burden over her chest, but as soon as Mrs Ajasin saw her she didn’t pick up pebbles and throw it at Martha, she didn’t move back and scream and ran into the house, she didn’t frown and moved past her. She did something different than the cruel things Martha had imagined. She extended her hands and came for a hug, celebrating their reunion properly. It was a reunion and it was mourning a family that was now incomplete, a family of just the females. For Martha, she was crying to say she was sorry for what Mrs Ajasin was facing and would face as a woman who was the only head of the family after losing her son and husband.
‘I was a mother and I wasn’t a mother enough. I didn’t know he did that to you. I didn’t know. But don’t let us blame the dead. We would ask God to forgive him and rewrite our future. We can’t live by what evil the dead has set down to ruin us.’ Martha heard the sobs and it forced her tears down her face, like a tap that wasn’t locked properly. She pressed herself to the woman’s neck and shut her eyes; she could remain like this, forgetting what life used to be at Rendezvous, and thinking of life as a new plate, an empty plate.
Ayo’s murderer was a fellow student of the university. He was a member of a cult. He had stepped into the house with him and carried out the act, first with a bottle to the back of the head and a knife to the neck. The police had gotten a clue from another fellow student. Ngozi said Uchenna had hunted for him like a snake looking for rabbit and had found him in a small corner in Bayelsa state. Martha and Mrs Ajasin were there when the court of law said he should be hanged for his offense.
Afterwards, mother and daughter lived in the same house and related like two visitors getting to know each other. It was long they have been separated and perhaps Mrs Ajasin saw her as a new girl she had to be familiar with from afresh. They go about things fresh like two strangers. Mrs Ajasin could say, ‘how do you like your Amala? Cold or hot? So that I can serve it now and not keep it in the cooler?’
And Martha would come with her own familiarity questions, ‘mummy, when will I have the chance to escort Florence to school?’
‘I think she will be glad?’
Or she asked, ‘mum, should I keep the light on in the parlour.’ She had been watching the television when sleep wasn’t forthcoming. As Mrs Ajasin was going into her room to sleep, she asked her familiarity question not because she didn’t know what is right — keeping the light off — but because of her mother’s opinion matters. She is the new person she was looking up to.
‘Keep it on,’ the older woman said and went inside.
Martha and Florence too were having a good time to know each other. Martha was seeing a younger sister having a smooth transition from a young age to the age she used to be and Florence was looking over her shoulders, smiling sheepishly for this kind of love she was receiving. She would smile broadly, shyly when Martha came with her questions, ‘Have you done your assignment?’ Have you called your class teacher about the reason for your absence? Have you cleaned your room? Come and check my bag and pick what you like?’ They went through the bag together and it was Martha who did most of the picking while Florence smiled like a picture framed with its smile, no other thing to do than smile and smile.
The nights were a time for Martha to go through her life page by page, past by past, incident by the incident to see what the future holds for her. She remembered the ones that hurt most, like the days she was trapped within the hotel room with a man, who was angry at his wife and Martha was at the receiving end of it, she remembered the day of going to the University of Lagos campus and someone asked her, you didn’t look like a student. She had forgotten how a student looks and would have tried to look that way at least to cover up the shame that struck her that day. The next morning she would ask Mrs Ajasin if she could return to school. She would like to bring joy to the mother, to be a good daughter this time. Since Ayo’s death, she hadn’t stepped close to the walls of Rendezvous, she had managed to survive on foods from her friends, stipends from Sophia and lately, some credit from Rugged. She wanted to be in school. Mrs Ajasin only smiled and said, ‘the Lord will do it.’ And so the Lord began doing it from the next day, first by taking Martha to a lesson centre near the house and secondly by asking her questions about the school of choice and course of study which Martha answered promptly, Unilag and Medicine.
There are things Martha wished to have, but sadly, there are no alternatives for them. She had to come to terms with some truth. While the eyes can see what you want, getting it can be a difficult thing. There are things in life that would take too long to get that a man, who has teaspoon patience, which is most of men, of course, would settle for alternatives. She wished Ayo would wake up and together they would make their parents proud again. There was no alternative to that life, no one could be her brother and lover and a son to Mrs Ajasin. She wished to see Uchenna again but the harder she tried, the harder she realised, life wanted her somewhere else; he was difficult to find these days like the moon during the day. But she never forgot him, his smile decorated with heavy beards, and she believed she would meet him soon to thank him. And so when she got to Unilag, she looked forward to that day like waiting for the sound of cricket at night, settled into school life and engaged in activities she liked. She joined the dancing group and there she realized you will want to live for more days if there is what gives you joy. She got admission into the University as Microbiologist instead of medicine; life offered an alternative; the man who helped her, after collecting a hundred thousand from Mrs Ajasin’s purse had said ‘many people are dying to have this course’. She wasn’t dying to have it but she would take it with the same level of seriousness of her desire. She had a lot to pay back into Mrs Ajasin’s purse and the journey started from the first day she stepped a foot into Unilag now as a student.
The past cannot be erased. When Martha heard the name Rendezvous these days, which was nearly once in a month, she followed with a hiss or a shake of the head. She didn’t have a battle cutting ties with the place except on night when she felt lonely and thought she could ride on a man’s lap, Uchenna being the likeliest and the living soul she would do with joy. Sometimes she remembered that clubhouse while walking on the street and seeing girls in skimpy dresses lined by the roadside, fingers extended like a duck’s neck. Sometimes when someone stopped and stared at her in uncertain recognition. Sometimes when a friend invited her to a night party and there were strippers. It would seem the world is spinning too fast and the images blurry and she didn’t know what to do than to sit half-dead. It would seem as if the strippers were a reflection of herself, like watching your own performance on TV when you are completely tired. But Martha knew how to keep her past that even if a gentleman noticed how she seemed to be in a fuss, she smiled awkwardly and said headache or tiredness. She had to move on. Life was meant to be beautiful and mistakes could ruin it if one carried it everywhere. She was now in school, a dream she had prayed tirelessly for. She loved the life, the freedom, the much leisure time she had was quite surprising for her and every day, there were buckets and buckets of freedom which she could use on anything and the idea of going back to Rendezvous would pop up like a stubborn plant on a floored area.
‘We have not been seeing you around,’ Rugged said on the phone one day. ‘Hope you are good.’
Martha smiled and imagined herself walking back into Rendezvous, climbing on the pole and dancing like a snake, her under-legs up for the world’s view, ‘I’m fine,’ she said, ‘I just want to focus on school.’
‘Well, that’s a good thing but you know school shouldn’t be a barrier. You know more than I do. You have seen many of your mates. How smart they are about it. One will not disturb the other.’
Martha sighed and listened.
‘And I believe you know how much you are missing. You can study and make as much as you want. It is not a crime and nobody is going to label you. Many of the women you see do it and it isn’t written on their face.
Rugged advice would have convinced Martha on many counts, say, if Ayo was still alive or his father wasn’t dead, or if Martha hadn’t shed tears of renewed loyalty to Mrs Ajasin as her mother. It was as if her ‘mother’ eyes were watching and disappointing the only one left as her parent is like cutting her own throat. It would have worked even if on the next day, while they were returning after class, a Range Rover hadn’t driven towards them and a woman jumped down from it like a big antelope and ran forward to a girl, took off the girl’s wig, slapped her as in WrestleMania and tore her gown so that the girl packed her breasts in her hands. Camera shone their lights. If this kind of thing happened to Martha and Mrs Ajasin heard about it; she would wish death on herself seeing the ‘mother’s’ tears fall again or seeing Florence wearing a face of disappointment. Her real parents had decided she could not amount to something and she wouldn’t prove them right. She would prove Mrs Ajasin right.
When Uchenna came to her school one day, she was super excited and happy to tell him she had quit working at Rendezvous. He smiled and stood and gave her a hug. They sat and talked about school, Unchenna giving her description of things they did as boys in Unilag and how he survived the lean days as a student.
‘I’m into dancing now,’ Martha said. ‘I do it in my leisure time. Joined a dancing group’
‘Oh, that’s great. I have a friend who helps these artists find girls that could dance. They train them you know. And they could pay you well and give you something reasonable.’
Martha smiled, ‘how can I get him.’
‘Let me call her.’ He spoke quietly on the phone for some minutes. ‘She said you should call her this evening. So write her number.’
Uchenna hadn’t changed except for the way she looked at Martha. It wasn’t like before where he looked at her as a white mouse in a glass cage, a young bud with a fragile heart, a young flower that needs attention, with a beautiful face and an innocent heart. He looked at her as a young girl with a beautiful face and body to devour. Martha wasn’t innocent at all and she noticed there was something different from this Uchenna and it was the part of him she hadn’t seen before. He didn’t wear the old excitement he used to wear. He just stared at her neck and down to her chest and forced his eyes off like breaking dried glue off a piece of cardboard, but soon he was in the same mess all over again and Martha was noticing. When he excused himself to use the toilet, Martha adjusted her bra and smiled, finally, he was noticing what she had wanted him to notice. So they ate, with Martha rushing her food, and Martha talked with her heart while her mouth munched and her brain froze. They ended in his car against what Martha had planned and soon they ended in his house, much to Martha’s surprise and even his room was a mess, showing he wasn’t prepared for this, and soon he was over her like a warm blanket, his body oily and his hands working mostly in what his eyes had been admiring all day. While this was going she was riding on a fantasized moon with flowers falling and butterflies flying and birds singing but when it ended and she raised a paper on the bedside, and his wedding invitation fell off, she knew she was wrong on many counts and yes, she had disgraced her mother. It was Martha’s mistake; everything paused when Uchenna showed little interest in her body than he used to and she jumped on him like a duck into a swimming pool.
The next time they met, Martha had prepared a speech. It was going to be a perfect time to show her appreciation for all he has done for her starting from saving her from the set up to the wedding he didn’t talk about. Deceit was something she couldn’t cope with. How fast do people change? How fast? She thought she loved her, that he came back for the love in his heart that would not go away. No matter how hard she had tried to focus on school and forge about men, there was this soft spot, a welcoming ground that he could land on, anytime he came back. No, she was wrong. He came for her body. He came to satisfy himself before he settled down with a flawless and unstained girl and Martha had jumped on him based on an old trust — he was different from other men. She was wrong.
‘Uchenna, you are a bast***d. Your type is meant to be in a psychiatric hospital. You know nothing about being a human. Thank you, anyway. You have done your best. I have seen your wedding is ready. I didn’t think like a girl. But never mind. You have done your best. This is not the man that I know and if you are still the one, you have been lying all the while. I will never see you again. I will treat you as a stranger and you should do the same if you don’t want me to bite you.’
She turned and left. If she had expected a reaction, a plea or surprise, she didn’t get it, and only the sound of her heeled shoes followed her, and then she cried; she had been wrong on many things.